Originally posted on May 21, 2001
In Zen they have a practice which they call shikantaza. And of course, even to call it a practice is already misleading, because it actually means “doing nothing.” The literal translation of it is “just sitting.” What does it mean? One way of approaching it is to realize that in everything else we do there is some kind of goal or activity. We meditate in order to become enlightened, or we go to work in order to make money, or we go out with friends to have fun. It pervades everything. It can be very subtle, too. We may be meditating and just watching our breath or just repeating a mantra or even just witnessing our thought-stream, and yet there is still this smidgen of activity that will “get us somewhere.” We’ll accomplish something. We’ll build an empire, or raise the children, or get the house built, or get past these legal problems or whatever it is. The very definition of the “I,” the self, the decider, the somebody who’s living a personal life, is that there is some activity, some manipulation somewhere to accomplish something. And everything we do, no matter how subtle, reinforces this concept that we exist separately. That’s where shikantaza comes in. In shikantaza we just sit down and rest in pure awareness. There’s no technique whatever to support us, to keep the game going. No deliberate watching of the breath, no doing the mantra, not even investigating the koan or deliberately witnessing the mind. Just pure awareness, nothing else. The most subtle goal of all that the self sets up is to become awakened or enlightened. Yet the very act of doing anything at all to become enlightened sets up a subtle duality which reinforces the self. I am here and enlightenment is over there. I am on this shore and I need to get to the “other shore” somehow, the one where I’ll be self-realized, awakened, liberated. Yet beings who become liberated say very strange things, such as “Every being is already enlightened.” The Buddha himself said that. Whatever could he have meant? After all, as we engage in our everyday world with its pressures and responsibilities and disappointments and so on, we certainly don’t feel enlightened. But perhaps to feel any separation at all between awakening and this very life that we’re living now is to set up the very duality that makes us feel that awakening is on some other shore somewhere.
What the Buddha and others were pointing to is that the other shore is this shore, this very one that we’re on, this very life that we’re living, indeed this very minute, this very second, with all of its ups and downs and successes and failures, this very moment-life is the awakened life.
We are already awakened, this very moment, always and forever. The ungraspable mystery is that who we actually are is the ungraspable mystery. It is living life in us and as us, and it is always inherently liberated because that is its essential nature.
Shikantaza captures this, because it has no goal, nowhere to go, nothing to achieve or accomplish, no activity of any kind, not even the slightest technique to support it. There are literally no instructions. Or to put it another way, the instruction is to “just sit.”
In that “just sitting,” we become aware of awareness itself, which needs no support anywhere, no technique of any kind to be itself—not even “just sitting,” which the mind can try to make into a technique to get somewhere.
In pure awareness there is no idea of the “I,” no concept of the personal doer, the separate decider-self who’s always trying to get somewhere in the next minute or the next year. There’s just awareness itself, manifesting as this ordinary moment, this ordinary life. There is no separation between that shore and this shore; that’s just another duality set up by the mind, just one more goal.
This very life is the other shore. The ungraspable mystery as it lives through you and me—as you and me—is always enlightened and completely free, even as it rushes to catch the train or becomes disheartened at a loss.
In this very moment, this very breath, we can see it, feel it, become aware that there’s nowhere to go even as movement continues. Since the ungraspable is already everywhere, where does it need to go? Since it’s already everything, what does it need to accomplish? And yet the dance continues.
This cannot be understood through the mind, through ideas and grasping onto intellectual concepts. Yet your heart can become aware of it in this very instant. Indeed, it already has.
Jim Sloman, 5/21/2001